Taking design beyond the form, Nicolas Gwenaël, founder of Tokyo's aptly named Curiosity Studio plays with light and technology, creating esoteric works that play with the senses and question our perception of reality.
Nobody embodies the cultural fusion of East-meets-West better than French designer Nicolas Gwenaël. As winner of the Royal Society of Art’s annual design competition in 1991, for his prize he chose a ticket to Tokyo to meet Naoki Sakai, the celebrated designer and head of Water Design Studio, and also found a home. The Gallic accent in his speech has become a subtle undertone, along with his design heritage, as his focus lies more in a philosophy of the less, rather than in the ornate diktats of traditional French design.
After years of collaborating with both Sakai and Japanese design legend Issey Miyake on product and interior design, in 1998 Gwenaël opened his own office, Curiosity, a multi-disciplinary practice that works concurrently on a vast range of projects, from retail interiors including Soho’s Pleats Please Issey Miyake and Uniqlo’s new Shinjyuku megastore store, as well as impressive installations that take technology and innovation to creative new levels, such as the 2005 D-Day at Paris’s Pompidou Center. At the 2009 Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan’s design fair, the designer presented the new Sen tap system for Agape and the haunting Mist bench as part of the Tokyo Fiber SENEWARE exhibition.
Nicolas Gwenaël’s definition of luxury:
Something that you don’t expect.
If luxury were a moment
The moment when my daughter comes to wake me up each morning. It’s incredible, I can’t stop kissing her. It’s sublime.
Tom Ford, definitely.
Tom Ford’s shop…no, The Datai, it’s totally amazing.
I want to create for my wife a diamond, but without the ring. I don’t know how I would do it, but I want to. It’s no design, just the essence.
What is your design approach?
I consider every object, how it should be and I always ask myself the question: “should things exist or not?” To design a house as simple as possible is actually really difficult, because at the end of the day you have to include many things to be able to use it. When designing Agape’s Sen system, I decided to have the tap aligned with the shelves, the toilet paper, the hanger, the light and everything. When you enter the room it disappears, so it’s actually redesigning the information of the objects, not the shapes, and I think that’s really important for design now. It’s an interesting time, where we can create a new typology to give choice, because I don’t think we really have choice. When you see a chair, it’s just a chair, there are millions of chairs, for me they are all the same, they are all great, they use craftsmanship, but I think you should ask the question: “Is the chair necessary?” Same when we design lamps, we should ask: “What kind of light do I want?”, rather than what kind of lamp.
How does Asian and European design differ?
In Japan, we don’t have this question of object, because we don’t have objects or a culture of furniture. Japan will never be a great furniture-making country. In Italy, the architecture already exists so you have to work with the interior because the building was created 200 years ago, you have no choice, but in Japan you don’t need furniture because the building itself is like furniture. Its view of time is different, it’s like fashion, how one creates the dynamic of time within interiors through furniture in Europe is totally different.
Japanese design is like Calder, you always have to think in terms of balance. In Europe, design is very static; we think about proportion, as in very traditional architecture. In Japan we think about mobility, when things move they find a natural balance, so when you have this kind of contrast between movement and stasis there is a kind of interesting tension.
What made you move to Japan?
I was interested in Japan because the category of design doesn’t exist there. The way objects are created is for a scene and inside this scene you have different elements. You need a table to drink tea, so then you choose a cup and then a light because the effect of the light on what you do creates what you see, so then you have to choose the lamp, and then the flower that goes with it; everything is connected somehow when you create, you cannot stop. When you start, you even wonder about the wall – should it be there or not? It’s a different attitude.
You work with innovative technology to create incredible installations with light, such as the successful Tokyo Wonder. How do you do this?
I want to test the limit of perception, what is reality and what is not. Actually, when I started designing I wanted to be an art director for movies because I thought it would be really fun, but I realized that the challenge is to actually do it for real. Now I’ve arrived at the level that goes beyond the reality, to create a situation where people don’t know if it’s real or not, using real things. Light is a very important component in materiality. With light you can control time, the senses – you don’t build something that is static. I use light as a marker or an eraser because it can make things disappear. In a space, you can make the ceiling, the wall and the floor disappear just by using light, by removing all shadows - that’s really fascinating. Now we use light to control the space, but I use light to make it disappear.
How did your fascination for light come about?
In Japan, it’s very strange, the sun is really close so it’s really bright. Even in winter when it’s grey, you almost want to wear sunglasses. Even when it’s raining it’s bright, but with no sun, no shadow, everything disappears – walls, ceiling – you don’t see things. The house I live in is small, but it has no dimension, it’s really great how even a small space can be made really big because if you don’t put anything in it, your eyes don’t stop. In my house the ceiling is very low but it feels like infinity. It’s amazing, very simple. You have to look at things, how you feel and then use it in design. It’s not what you see but what you feel in design that’s very important.
For my next project, I want to design a church. I want the space to be very complicated, very narrow but very large, but using light to make the space disappear, so when you enter it feels like a white space – suddenly you feel that the wall is there, and a cross coming at you from you don’t know where. Everything is in the subconscious, not the conscious. It comes from yourself, you see what you want to see, it’s just intellectual, but you can go beyond that. I think that in design and communication we don’t use the human senses enough. The American artist James Turrell did an amazing thing in Noshima in Japan, it’s a black room and you stay inside for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes you see a frame, it takes time for your eyes to adjust. If you go outside then back inside, you can see it immediately because your senses calculate it within your memory. Today everything is too obvious, one doesn’t see, and there are so many things we can do with that.
Did this influence your Mystic bench project, which you presented recently in Milan?
Again, this is the work of non-existence. When you enter the room it’s all black. When someone walks the Senor makes the bench appear. Imagine that if you had a showroom that when there was nobody there, it would all disappear. That’s what I want to do. Reality has such a power. If you play with it, it’s fascinating, don’t play around with the virtual.
Your work involves a lot of interesting technology, where does this stem from?
I don’t actually, or at least I try not to, but the only way to make reality simple is to use technology because it is invisible. It takes a lot of work to make it disappear but materials and technology have never really appealed to me. This is how I want Japan to move forward. Technology is too much the main element, televisions measure only 2cm wide –
who cares? From big to slim, ok, but for the sake of a few millimeters? They have to stop thinking about that.
With the Mystic bench I took optic fiber and created a new fabric with a fabric designer so people would question the material and realize that it’s an optic fiber. You create curiosity and then fill it with information, not the other way around.
How important has science and technology become in design?
A lot of the time, science and technology are evolution but scientists and engineers don’t know where they are going because the next step is that they have a concept, but they have no intention. This is the opposite of design, which should have an intention, the process doesn’t matter, so if you put the two together, it’s fantastic because design has a purpose and technology has the power to make it real.
You cite Issey Miyake and Naoki Sakai as your mentors, what did you learn from them?
Sakai San is a marketer. How design exists within society is really important. It’s easy to be a designer, but why do you make stuff? They have to exist in the real world. The concept for me is rubbish, if it doesn’t become real it’s totally useless, so he has these great ideas on how you can communicate it, how you find people who can actually make it, that’s what I learned from him. He’s like an interface, like a casting director of a movie, how he chooses the lighting designer, the music... design projects are like this, it is about casting. To choose a client is also like a casting, you have this great idea, but who I choose to bring it to, this is really important.
…And Issey Miyake?
At one point I realized that my design was not good enough. With Issey Miyake, whatever project he did, from interiors, fashion, whatever it was, everything was the best in its category. I want to be the best in every category and understand how he achieved this goal, that’s what I learned from him.
What is the current spirit of design?
I’m so glad the decorative aspect has gone. It’s very difficult for me because I’m always in Japan, so I’m more influenced by a Japanese approach than an Italian approach, but I think that nothing really changes. The Italians make a beautiful shape with amazing craftsmanship and they shouldn’t change. That’s why we all come to Milan, and when we go to Japan we experience different things.
What are you presently working on?
I’m designing a perfume bottle and packaging for a make-up line for a brand, which will be launched next year. I’m doing a new house project in Japan, a restaurant in Macau at the top of a casino, it will be a big glass box. I’m also researching projects, I want to do an exhibition in Japan next year so I’m starting to work on this. It’s an exhibition about attraction, from gravity to love, when you put two things together anything can happen. We’re also doing a lot of shop projects, but no furniture, except that I’m doing materials and such.